'State of Play': When an American Remake of a British Hit Fails

This is the third installment in our series on American adaptations of British television. Read the first two installments: "'Being Human': Syfy Remakes a British Hit" and "'Prime Suspect': Can Maria Bello Live Up to Helen Mirren?"


Universal Pictures

When American studios remake British television hits, they're often aiming for a fairly direct translation of a proven concept. Whether they're trying to capitalize on the momentum of a still-running show like Being Human by removing the accents and picking a North American location, or revitalizing a story that's ended—as NBC is doing with its remake of British procedural Prime Suspect, which combines the bureaucratic politics of The Wire with the salacious thrills of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—the remakes hope that the replicas will have the same appeal as the originals.

But occasionally, they'll aim higher, convinced they can improve on the original, or at least produce something new entirely. Such was the 2009 attempt to turn State of Play—a 2003 six-hour BBC miniseries about a team of journalists investigating the murders of a young black man and a political researcher who was having an affair with her employer—into a two-hour star vehicle for Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck. But the ambitious remake fell short: Where the original was innovative and often wrenching, the adaptation was a contrived failure.

Some of the trouble with the remake was in the casting. In the original, actor David Morrissey, who plays member of Parliament Stephen Collins, is six years older than John Simm, who plays Cal McCaffrey, a journalist who once worked as his campaign manager. Yet despite the age difference, they are plausible contemporaries. By contrast, Crowe, who plays Cal, is eight years older than Affleck, who steps into the Collins role--and the difference looks even bigger than the number would suggest. This matters, because Cal and Collins are supposed to be college roommates. There's trouble with the other actors as well: Jason Bateman doesn't have the sickly immorality Marc Warren brings to the pivotal role of a murdered woman's friend. And however much swagger she's capable of, Helen Mirren seems rather wan for once, stepping into Bill Nighy's shoes as the editor of the paper.

Mirren fails, though, because of a larger problem with the movie: It doesn't understand what the mini-series was actually about and what makes it great. In the movie's interpretation, the story is a simple murder mystery, with Cal's role indistinguishable from that of a principled but troubled detective. Rachel McAdams as Della, a chipper blogger assigned to the case, is meant to provide some veneer of debate over the changing mores of journalism, but she capitulates to Cal's investigative impulses so quickly that declarations like "She's hungry, she's cheap, and she churns up copy every hour," don't land anything close to a punch.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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